The Environmental Legacy of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 1920-2019
John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion granting environmental agencies the power to regulate greenhouse gases, died Tuesday at the age of 99. His decision gave the U.S. government important legal tools for fighting the climate crisis.
"Justice John Paul Stevens was one of the great environmental heroes of the last century," Washington Gov. and climate-focused presidential candidate Jay Inslee wrote in a statement following his death. "His decisions formed the bedrock of America's environmental laws, and his impact on our environment will be felt for generations to come."
Justice John Paul Stevens was one of the great environmental heroes of the last century. His decisions formed the b… https://t.co/q3oE7UcJl4— Jay Inslee (@Jay Inslee)1563333437.0
Stevens was appointed to the court by President Gerald Ford in 1975 and retired in 2010 at the age of 90, having served more than twice the average amount of time for a Supreme Court Justice, the Associated Press reported. He was characterized as moving from the center to the liberal wing of the court during his tenure, but Stevens himself thought that was inaccurate. In his view, the court had moved to the right while his positions had stayed roughly the same.
"I don't think of myself as a liberal at all," Stevens told The New York Times in 2007, as the Associated Press reported. "I think as part of my general politics, I'm pretty darn conservative."
However, Stevens did rule in favor of a number of positions considered liberal, including gay rights, abortion rights and gun control, according to Reuters. He also opposed key Bush administration policies. For example, he wrote the court's decision that detainees at Guantanamo Bay could challenge their incarceration in U.S. courts.
Another disagreement with the Bush administration marked perhaps the cornerstone of his environmental legacy. In Massachusetts v. EPA, he wrote the majority opinion arguing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had the authority to regulate auto emissions that contribute to climate change, The New York Times reported at the time. Further, he ruled that, if the agency chose not to regulate greenhouse gases, it would have to justify its decision with science.
The Bush administration has argued that the EPA lacked the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act and that, even if it had the power, the Bush EPA would not choose to use it. Stevens disagreed.
"Because greenhouse gases fit well within the Act's capacious definition of 'air pollutant,' EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases from new motor vehicles," Stevens wrote.
His decision paved the way for key Obama-era policies, such as the first auto-emissions standards focused on limiting climate-changing emissions, Grist wrote in a reflection on his retirement in 2010.
Manhattan v. EPA wasn't his only significant environmental decision. Grist highlighted three others:
- Chevron v. NRDC: This 1984 decision was initially seen as a defeat for environmentalists because it said the DC Circuit could not override the Reagan EPA's decision to give more flexibility to companies in honoring their Clean Air Act obligations. However, it set an important precedent that the courts should defer to regulatory agencies when they act on a reasonable interpretation of a law.
- Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter Of Communities For A Great Oregon: In this 1995 case, Stevens reinstated the portion of the Endangered Species Act that protected the habitats of endangered species. It had been struck down based on a narrow interpretation by the DC Circuit, but Stevens argued that the intent of the law was clearly on the side of protecting habitats.
- Sierra Preservation Council v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: In this case, decided in 2002, Stevens wrote the majority opinion that upheld land use protections for Lake Tahoe. His ruling reversed the court's abuse of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to block environmental laws.
"Justice Stevens should be remembered as a great justice in environmental cases, not because he bent the law to favor environmental outcomes, but rather because he insisted that the law itself, which dictates environmental outcomes in many cases, be followed," Grist concluded.
Stevens died in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida following complications from a stroke he suffered on Monday, according to a Supreme Court statement reported by Reuters. He was remembered fondly by his former colleagues.
"He brought to our bench an inimitable blend of kindness, humility, wisdom, and independence. His unrelenting commitment to justice has left us a better nation," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the statement.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline Fight Could Go to the Supreme Court https://t.co/PyjtlKV3vr— Lakota Country Times (@Lakota_Timez) March 2, 2019
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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